Life-Changing Experience: It’s been just over a week since I left Salem. I feel like I’m slowly emerging from the euphoric aftereffect the experience of UnCon produced. I can only now begin to analyze the insights gained and the effects produced.
For those who don’t know what an UnCon is (or was), it’s the brainchild of Writer Unboxed founder Therese Walsh—a five-day gathering of around 100 unboxed writers in Salem, Massachusetts. Not quite a writers’ conference, not quite a retreat, the WU UnConference was totally focused on the craft of writing. There have been some wonderful posts and statuses on the experience, and I identify with them all. Terms like “life-changing” and “transcendent” have been bandied, and not in a frivolous or crass way.
So I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been changed, and how my approach to my work has changed. I was struck by how layers were shed so that layers could be added. Allow me to explain.
Peeling Layers of Fear: One of my favorite posts about UnCon is by my friend Kim Bullock (read it here). Kim gets real about how UnCon and the people there managed to peel away her fears, about herself and about her work. She got me to thinking about my own layers of fear. Sometimes I feel like the little brother in Christmas Story, so bound up in layers I can hardly move ahead. But the experience of UnCon gives me insight as to how far I’ve come in shedding a few layers. I continue to gain freedom of movement to make progress on my journey. Going back to the beginning, to various degrees and at various times, here are some of the layers of fear I’ve been bound by:
*Admitting my writing aspiration—I told very few people when I started that I hoped to write a novel. I feared both that they’d think I’d never pull it off, and that they’d be right. I feared they’d think I was either nuts or a self-absorbed show-off. And I feared honestly asking myself if either of those was actually the case.
*Proclaiming myself a writer—Even after I finished a draft of my trilogy, I very rarely told those I met socially what I actually do (which is that I write fiction with a side of occasional carpentry). When I just said carpenter, it sometimes led to trouble. People would ask me to come and quote jobs for which I hadn’t the time or interest or desire. I finally realized it was easier just to say I was a writer—which also has its own set of obstacles, including dealing with the next item on this list.
*Admitting I’ve been writing for ten years and am still pursuing publication—We’ve all run into non-writers who don’t understand that successful novels aren’t written, but rewritten. Laymen think getting the thing down on the page—that’s the trick, right? Once those of us who are unpublished expose ourselves as writers to the non-writers in our lives, we must brace ourselves for the question: “So, how’s the book coming.” No matter how many manuscripts you’re working on, or how many essays, articles, or shorts you publish, they want to know about “the book.” And this could go on for years! Once I faced the fear and started coming clean, I found I could deal with the question in one of two ways: Smile, nod, and say, “The book is coming along.” Or enter into an explanation of the entire process and what I’m actually working on, and offer some explanation of why it all takes time. It’s a judgement call. Some are interested, some glaze over and/or change the subject. But it’s a layer of fear that you are forced to confront again and again. And the longer it takes, the more I imagine the laymen around me thinking, “Wow—his writing must really suck for this to be taking this long.”
*Telling people what I actually write—I spent many years avoiding telling people I write epic fantasy. I recall shortly after I started occasionally admitting that I write fiction, I met a woman at a party who asked me what I wrote. It was one of the first times I’d been asked by a new acquaintance. She surprised me into blurting, “Epic historical fantasy.” After a few nods and hums of feigned interest as I blathered about my chosen era, she interrupted me to ask: “So do you think you’ll ever write anything… you know, serious?” I honestly think she meant well. But the shock of it left me telling lies and half-truths for years afterward. “I write historical fiction,” or “I write fiction based in the ancient Roman era,” became my go-to answer to the question of what I write. I’m not sure when I overcame the fear of admitting it. I think I just got to a place of: “I don’t give a shit what you think of fantasy—it’s my genre; I’m a geek, and proud of it.” Funny that now, many years hence, I’m often immediately asked in response, “You mean like Game of Thrones?” My, how things change.
*Fear of being read/critiqued—I’ve written about my experiences with beta-readers and with being critiqued before. It’s never been easy for me to take criticism, but it’s certainly gotten easier over the years. It always takes me a day or so to absorb it and see it clearly. So I have never imagined myself taking critique well in a public setting, like a critique group that meets in real life. Despite my shortcomings, having great writer friends who’ve appreciated my work (as opposed to just friends and family) has been hugely encouraging and confidence-building. Even blogging has helped, but being read and critiqued is the ultimate and final layer of fear that I’ve struggled to peel away. And I know that it’s something I’ll have to continue to face, for the rest of my career. It only gets more extreme once your book is out there, being publically reviewed and discussed. (There was a hysterical and cathartic session at UnCon, led by the amazing and successful Erika Robuck, where she and other published author attendees shared their worst reviews. I can see having a sense of humor about my insecurity will help.)
UnCon—The Peel Sessions: Regarding my aforementioned fear of public critique, on day two of UnCon I was placed in a position by an admired mentor to face it. My favorite teacher of craft, Donald Maass, asked me if he could use the opening to my manuscript The Bonds of Blood during his session on micro-tension (a concept I’ve struggled to effectively master in my own work). I knew Don was going to ask the class to deconstruct my work, find its lacking, then together we would find our way to greater micro-tension in the scene. I supposed before arriving in Salem that this would be the most difficult trial I would face that week. To be honest, it was much easier than confronting the inner journey I would subsequently face. During the session, my fellow WUers were very kind and funny in the deconstruction process, and Don made it a fun exercise. I gained a better grasp on micro-tension than I’ve ever gotten from the books or posts (as good as they are). It was a gift. I consider that layer of fear truly and well peeled (for the moment).
So I’ve seen that some fears can be defeated. Some we can at least we can become inured to. But there are some we must face again and again if we are to grow. UnCon shined a light on one of the most important fears of all: Fear of revealing too much of myself—even to myself—through story. Sure, I’ve revealed parts of myself. There was self-revelation in my work before UnCon. But I’ve learned that I must delve deeper. I’ve learned that only through an honest and often difficult look at myself, and a willingness to infuse my work with what I’ve found, can I hope to truly connect in a genuine way.
Taken To Church: What Don asked of us in a later session took me to church. In his soothing voice, WU’s esteemed craft-guru asked us to look inside ourselves. At what we consider shameful, at our deepest truths; at what’s gone wrong in our lives, and at what’s gone right. He asked us to find a feeling we had never had before. Then he asked us to find the moments when our protagonist faces these things—feels these things. The session’s inner probing moved me to the point of filling my eyes with tears. A couple of times, in fact. I was peeled to my core, and I knew that what I’d found there was behind my writing journey. It wasn’t just there beneath the surface of my stories—it was at the root of what drove me to pick up a jobsite notebook and a carpenter’s pencil and write some cryptic notes about a Gothic chieftain’s son and his warrior-woman secret guardian.
From Thread-Bare to Well-Woven: Between the environment and being in the company of other willing souls, I found my way to stripping away the remnant layers. We were asked to dig as well as shed. Lisa Cron behooved us to find the foundations of our stories through backstory. She implored us to find specific moments that informed how our characters responded to the events of our ‘plots.’ “Specifics beget specifics!” was her refrain. For the story is not in what happens, but in how what happens affects our characters in the pursuit of a difficult goal!
So I came home, stripped of some of my longstanding fears, and started digging. The process is revealing the layers of depth that can be achieved. I can now see so far beyond what merely happens. I can see how much more deeply, how much more profoundly, my characters are affected by what happens. I more clearly see how it is all rooted in moments—some which are very specific—that have impacted me and left an impression on my psyche. It’s now clearer to me how my own deepest feelings are rooted in the stories I tell. If I can convey those feelings in a resonant fashion—if I can find my way to my truest self on the page—it’s certain to add richness to the weave of my stories.
The UnCon Recipe: The UnCon was dedicated to elevating our shared craft. And through insight and a newfound grasp on the tools, my potential as a storyteller has been elevated. I’m not saying that my experience at UnCon will make my books successful. Success is a relative term. But the tools and insights gained there offer me a course to greater personal satisfaction. And if I remain true to what I’ve been shown, I will find my way to truer connection with readers. Now that’s a recipe for success.
The results in Salem seem magical, but they wouldn’t have come about without dedication and commitment that started at the top and permeated to all involved. So thank you, Therese Walsh. Thank you, Don Maass. Thank you Lisa Cron, Meg Rosoff, Brunonia Barry, Liz Michalski, and all of your fellow presenters and contributors. And thank you to my fellow UnCon attendees. Thank you for your willing commitment to the elevation of craft. Thank you all for being part of that wonderful recipe that resulted in the WU UnConference.
What about you? Are you comfy wearing layers? Or do you easily shed those I’ve remained bundled in? Do you struggle to dig deep for the threads that add richness to what you weave?